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Reality Check: Manage a Construction Business, Not a Project

To deliver high-quality projects faster, safer and more cost-effectively, general contractors are pushing new methods of delivery and leveraging an array of technologies to streamline collaboration and project control.

Accompanying these efforts are complex forces that make it difficult for executives to properly balance technical innovation with the sustained health of a business. One such force is the proliferation of lightweight, single-task applications aimed at various aspects of collaboration and project management. With mobile accessibility as their underpinning, some have had a profound and positive impact in the construction industry.

For general contractors and construction managers this proliferation of choices comes with a price. In their zeal to embrace the latest and greatest technology and liberate often-younger, digitally native workers, many firms are giving their field teams free rein to use the tools they choose. A seemingly equal number of firms claim to operate on standardized technologies and processes across all projects, but then do little to enforce the strategy. The fallout from either approach is disparate workflows, inconsistent and isolated data sets and eventual damage to the health of the business.

Construction is not a simple, single-party, low-liability endeavor. Managing complexity and risk is the very nature of the business. When processes and accompanying controls vary from project to project and un-curated information is stored in disparate and disconnected sources, it leaves a business exposed to extraordinary risk. Just because “there’s an app for that” doesn’t mean it’s best for a business. While helpful to one employee or a finite number of employees on a single project, the strategy of proliferating point applications will erode the measurement and control of a business.

Yesterday’s construction executive didn’t have a digital strategy directive on their long list of responsibilities, but today’s leaders do. Without an enforced directive, each employee is one click away from obscuring visibility across the project portfolio. Business leaders should consider these three strategies to balance project team autonomy and innovation with the long-term health of a business.

Build a Process Culture

When it comes to digital technologies, it’s not an innovation culture per se that a construction firm should seek. Instead, build a process culture that invites innovation. Construction projects are inherently unique, and some will take a turn that drives an off-road digital requirement or two. In these cases, don’t stifle the project team that sees an opportunity to solve that unique problem. However, do first ascertain that it is a problem worthy of a new solution.

And second, do insist that rigorous planning and analysis accompany the solution to ensure that the information management strategy is not compromised.

One construction IT executive described it this way, “We know our overall risk is increasing with the proliferation of apps our teams introduce in the field, but projects are king and we’re told to keep up.” As he well knows, “keeping up” will eventually fail as there is no deceleration in the technology choices project teams may entertain.

The effective prescription is a documented information management strategy accompanied by a systematic process where unique requirements are quickly vetted and are thoroughly accommodated. Involve passionate and influential project team members in a cross-functional planning group so they’re exposed to the effects that point application proliferation causes to a business.

Choose the battle

Not every iPhone app is the enemy of process culture. There is a proverbial bar below which some information is simply not that critical to managing the complexity and risk inherent in a business. Knowing what is above that bar is key to empowering project teams to experiment below the bar.

Drawings, models, RFIs, submittals and safety reporting are a few examples of information assets that have financial and legal ramifications. They should meet a defined data standard and be administered within a defined workflow across all projects. Form information strategy teams to define the processes and information workflows that, if mismanaged or become out of sync, would result in financial or legal repercussions—and regulate and hold to that corporate strategy. For everything else, let there be room for experimentation and creative autonomy among the project teams.

Asserting control over the most critical project management data and applications while allowing project-level autonomy where it’s appropriate, builds a process culture that balances innovation with risk management.

Communicate and train

Even before the directive is established, clearly communicate its purpose and why it’s important to the business. Once it is established provide thorough training at all levels of experience so employees know what is centrally controlled and what can be project-driven. Establish a tone from the top that embodies the process culture and fosters innovation by enlisting the support from senior project managers to advocate for the standards.

Mentorships are a great way to bridge the technology and knowledge gap between team members with varying levels of experience or even between younger and older generations in the organization. Establish firm-wide processes for testing new technologies and for sharing best practices across the company, and bring teams together to reinforce this culture of disciplined innovation.

DPR Construction is a great example of a forward-thinking national builder who succeeds in driving efficiencies around the delivery of their projects in new and innovative ways. Alan Watt, director of preconstruction technology for DPR, explains it best. “We’re an entrepreneurial company,” he says. “We try to give our team the tools they need to get the job done in the way that fits them. However, we’re also very disciplined and recognize the value in standards and that we need standards and platforms to elevate the entire company to do better as an organization.”

Today’s most successful general contractors are taking these steps to achieve greater results through a disciplined information management approach that balances innovation at the project level with corporate standards and predictable control at the business level.

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